Robert Rodriguez always has fun with his films but never so much as he has here. Part of the Grindhouse double feature (of which Tarantino’s Death Proof was the second feature), Planet Terror is a tongue in cheek homage to the Grindhouse horror movies of the 70′s. Don’t look for story here (town becomes infected by chemical weapon that creates flesh eating slowly dissolving zombies is about it), just enjoy the collage of set pieces one wilder than the other. Rose McGowan shines in an impressive cast as the one-legged go go dancer and Freddy Rodriguez does well as the hero. The rest of the cast amounts to a series of cameos the most welcome of which surely must be Michael Biehn’s as the town sheriff. Bruce Willis shows up here and there and so too does co-producer Quentin Tarantino himself in a hysterical performance as a mutating soldier. In a film such as this, there are film references galore but those nodding to John Carpenter’s and George Romero’s films are most prevalent. Not surprisingly therefore the shocks come mainly as things dart out of night accompanied by piercing sound effects signalling an overdose of gore.
Rating: The Good – 70.8 Genre: Science Fiction Duration: 101 mins Director: Francis Lawrence Stars: Will Smith, Alice Braga
Francis Lawrence’s take on Richard Matheson’s novella is a worthy addition to the sci-fi genre. Robert Neville (Will Smith) is the last man left in New York City after a genetically engineered virus either killed off the rest of the population or turned them into rabid cannibals. Like the earlier adaptation Omega Man, this film gives us a different type of mutant to the book (in the book they turned into vampires and were much more sinister in their methods) but unlike that film these mutants are far more scary. The production design involved in bringing the desolate New York to life is impressive and Lawrence creates some extremely tense scenes culminating in some genuinely terrifying moments. In this task, he is ably helped by his lead. As the only actor on show for long segments, Smith needed to bring presence to the role and he does it with ease giving us just the right balance between toughness and vulnerability. There are some minor issues such as the fact that the mutants managed to lose all pieces of clothing except their pants and the ending skirts the boundaries of cheesiness but for the most part, I am Legend is first class sci-fi/horror entertainment.
Rating: The Good – 87.2 Genre: Horror Duration: 127 mins Director: George A. Romero Stars: David Emge, Ken Foree, Scott H. Reiniger
George A. Romero’s sequel to Night of the Living Dead is arguably as good as its legendary predecessor and that’s all the more impressive given that it goes in a different direction story-wise. Not content to rehash the first film’s plot like so many modern sequels, Romero expands on the concept and establishes a textured universe for a franchise which seemed to be about much more than just making money. Dawn of the Dead picks up some time after where Night of the Living Dead left off, when the zombie threat has become widespread and cities are been overrun. Two SWAT cops hook up with a fleeing news helicopter pilot and his pregnant girlfriend and together the four of them occupy a shopping mall which they proceed to make their home.
Romero takes a far more tongue in cheek approach than in Night of the Living Dead but it only adds to the social commentary and enjoyment factors. The action is upscaled too resulting in some great concept scenes such as the one with the travelling hordes of bikers (which George Miller may or may not have noted before making Mad Max a year later). And as if that wasn’t enough, Ken Foree and Scott H. Reiniger as the two SWAT guys form what must be one of the (if not the) coolest on-screen duos as their fearless and enthusiastic attitude towards zombie killing infects (some pun intended) the film with an irrepressible sense of fun.
In Dawn of the Dead, Romero continues to harness his unorthodox writing and directorial style resulting in a thoroughly unique film experience. Don’t miss it because you won’t see anything else like it. Like most of Romero’s other work, it is the essence of independent cinema.
Rating: The Good – 94 Genre: Horror Duration: 96 mins Director: George A. Romero Stars: Duane Jones, Judith O’Dea, Karl Hardman
George A. Romero’s B-budget horror piece was revolutionary at its time and that still shows today. Beginning in a patient yet sinister fashion and maintaining a controlled pace to the end this film seems to creep into our psyche. A group of strangers accosted by ravenous undead humans board themselves up in an isolated house. The internal squabbling which erupts between the group slowly takes on the air of inevitability in much the same way as the relentless pursuit of the creatures outside does. This is where it all began and there’s a fresh sense of terror which any number of subsequent zombie movies has failed to replicate. Duane Jones became a folk hero most notably because he was one of the first black men to lead a cast of white people. Romero cleverly reserved any commentary on racial issues until the ending which is utterly unforgettable and all the more potent because of the wait.
On the technical front, Romero redefined the genre (and medium) with his economic use of lighting and set-design. Everything is lean and Romero uses that to augment the atmosphere. The gore is introduced sparingly making it all the more disturbing and the scenarios he creates (brother/sister, parents/child) were for the time (and still to this day) core-shocking and rooted in cultural discourse. Night of the Living Dead is a monument to horror direction and independent movie making alike. There are few films that have been more important to the medium and on top of all that, it’s one hell of an enjoyable 90 mins too.
Rating: The Ugly – 64.3 Genre: Science Fiction, Horror Duration: 98 mins Director: Boris Sagal Stars: Charlton Heston, Anthony Zerbe, Rosalind Cash
Matheson’s seminal novel “I am Legend” sees Charlton Heston playing the seemingly sole human survivor of a plague which either killed everyone else or turned them into deformed nocturnal fruit cakes. Free to roam the empty city by day, he is besieged at night time by a group of mutants organised by the mutant leader Matthias (in a deliciously over the top turn by Anthony Zerbe). First off, this film has dated drastically in terms of the mutants’ makeup. Not only are they not scary but it’s difficult to see how they’re anything but scarred, light sensitive, and pale skinned humans. In which case, Heston’s character Neville, who spends his days exterminating them, comes across as a homicidal maniac. They also refer to Neville as “him of the wheel” (in a reference of disgust to the technology that brought this plague upon them) as they wheel up a catapult to destroy him. However, despite these issues, this is still really enjoyable. Sure, it’s of its time but that seems to make it all the more atmospheric. Moreover, Heston was always great in these roles and he carries the film on his square shoulders with ease and plenty of personality. The production design is fairly impressive too in so far as the film quite realistically brings the deserted LA of the story to life. The Omega Man is not as slick as the more recent Will Smith film, it’s not as dark as the earlier Vincent Price driven adaptation The Last Man on Earth, nor is it as sinister as the book itself but it’s a decent effort all the same.
Rating: The Bad – 52.4 Genre: Action, Horror Duration: 116 mins Director: Marc Forster Stars: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz
As cities around the world are overrun by hordes of zombies, former UN inspector Gerry Lane is asked to leave his family and lead a team across the globe in an attempt to investigate the causes of the disaster. World War Z went on an epic journey through development hell before it reached the screens and so we could be legitimately skeptical as to whether the end result would be worth the effort. After all, blockbuster movies typically fail to materialise because the various vested interests (the bigger the project, the more the risk is spread around) each pull in different directions demanding rewrite on top of rewrite so that their competing ideas win. Compromises are the only way forward which means the story usually ends up an incoherent mess where plots collide and characters suffer. Unfortunately, and quite frustratingly, World War Z is a case in point.
Based on Max Brooks’ novel that details the attempts of a UN official to compile an oral history of a zombie apocalypse in the aftermath of the event, this is a movie that had two very interesting dimensions at its disposal, dimensions that could separate it from the err.. “hordes” of other zombie movies. Firstly, it uses the outbreak scenario as a means to explore the zombie apocalypse, focusing primarily on the investigations into the pathology of the plague. Secondly, it employs a world wide perspective zipping from one location to another in an attempt to trace the history of the disease. The movie more or less succeeds in including and doing justice to the latter dimension but makes only gestures at achieving the former. Whereas the investigation absolutely needed to be the primary focus, it emerges in fits and starts disappearing almost as quickly as it arose in a cloud of zombie mayhem as if the producers kept asking “where are the zombies?”. This only disengages the audience and kills the narrative that writers Matthew Michael Carnahan and Drew Goddard explicitly attempt to establish in the first act (no coincidence that this is the best part of the film). Thus, the script suffers immensely from a lack of stability and it prevents any momentum from building and even though Pitt is flying from the US to Korea, to Jerusalem, to Britain, the plot stands as still as a statue. The movie just never seems to go anywhere.
With so many ideas interrupted by the zombie marauders, one might at least hope the set pieces were spectacular in and of themselves. Aside from the opening sequence that whets the appetite nicely, they don’t. There are some clever ideas scattered about but none of them are given enough time to materialise and so they each come off decidedly pedestrian (the insistence on a PG-13 cut didn’t help here either). One gets the distinct impression that while Producer X was asking the writers to get straight to the action as quickly as possible, Producer Y was asking them to get back to the plot even more quickly. Or….. that everything good was being held off for a sequel!
With the story offering so little inspiration, it’s not too surprising that the dialogue is perfunctory and that crucial moments of exposition flounder in rushed attempts at adaptation – such as “the 10th man” explanation as to why Israel were prepared for the virus. To add insult to injury, much of the dialogue is mumbled which will frustrate the audience as they strain to hear it. Director Marc Forster can be at least lauded for giving the spaghettified story the semblance of structure and, again in the early sequences, he gives the zombies a reasonably formidable presence. However, there’s little he could do to salvage this.
Where the movie suffers most is in its now infamous third act. Damon Lindelof was brought in to rewrite the entire segment and while the largest portion of blame should fall on the producers and their tiresome inanity, this is yet another example of how Lindelof is all reputation and no product. His replacement for the original conclusion (where Pitt leading an invasion force back into the States is rewritten so that Pitt arrives at a WHO site in Wales because all of a sudden he thinks he has discovered a weapon against the zombies), is an utter shambles, disconnected or worse, antagonistic to everything that proceeded it in tone, spirit, and momentum. Even the look of the film changes as the cinematography becomes as dreary as the Cardiff weather.
Within all this, Brad Pitt ploughs a lonely furrow as his Gerry Lane is whisked back and forth through one rushed sequence or another. This is particularly unfortunate because he cuts an interesting figure and really seems to capture the unique heroic qualities of his character. It was these qualities and Brooks’ lucid conception of the story that should have spearheaded this film so that Lane’s decisions and thought processes shaped every sequence and set the tone. This would allow the many interesting ideas to gravitate towards each other so that the epic quality arose naturally. Instead, the “epic” was crowbarred into the film anywhere it seemed to fit.
In any analysis of World War Z, it can only be concluded that it doesn’t even come close to being the film it should be. A thrilling movie was hidden inside here waiting to get out but it was never let out. Whether that was due to producers who couldn’t keep their grubby hands off the creative components of the film, Lindelof who now has his own fingerprints all over two of the most catastrophic scripts of the last few years (Prometheus being the other one), or everyone involved is impossible to tell because the entire thing is so confused. What is for sure is that script-writing by committee has rarely worked and the sooner the producers realise this, check their egos, and let their writers do what they alone in the room are qualified to do, the sooner the Hollywood blockbuster will become something to look forward to again.
Rating: The Good – 74.6 Genre: Horror Duration: 91 mins Director: Dan O’Bannon Stars: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa
Tongue in cheek punk horror, every bit the cult classic, funny as hell, and damn near the best zombie film not made by George A. Romero. When a couple of blundering warehouse employees open a misplaced government capsule containing a zombified corpse, toxic gases escape into the atmosphere and turn everything not living into a fully conscious hyper zombie. Yes, even before the concept was flogged to post zombification by generations of creatively stunted film (& tv show!) makers, writer director Dan O’Bannon still insisted that even his comedy zombies bring something new to the canon.
And what a re-imagining it is. The quick rampaging zombie (predating Boyle’s 28 days later) adds a whole new level of terror to the concept while the “conscious” aspect was the perfect platform for outrageous comedy horror. Thus, the zombies of Return of the Living Dead have no problems or indeed hesitation in getting on the radio and asking the police to “send more cops”, paramedics, or anything else they fancy a bite of, and it’s freakin hilarious hearing them do it.
The scenario is equally humour friendly as the primary fodder for the undead hordes are a group of punks who crash the local cemetery for an impromptu party only to get caught in the inevitable tenant uprising so to speak. The colourful punk getup of the gang combined with the even more classic punk soundtrack provides a wonderfully reflexive backdrop to the carnage as casual anarchist meets the truest incarnation of their tribe’s ideal. As limbs fly, the angrily expressed fear of the disenfranchised generation is a sound to behold for the ensuing apocalypse seems just plain inconvenient! The casting in this film is inspired with James Karen in the form of his life as one of the two warehouse caretakers and Don Calfa reminding us yet again why he should’ve had a bigger career as he steals every scene as the odd-ball embalmer. Clu Gulager also puts in a strong show and for a film that hinged on how well the cast got what the film was about, much of its success must go down to the younger and older actors who filled it out.
In the final analysis, Return of the Living Dead can be largely understood to be the fruit of O’Bannon’s (err..) delicious screenplay and in many places inspired action direction. The concept of intelligent zombies is exploited in one ridiculously funny sequence after another to such a great extent, one wonders why we haven’t seen more of it since. The momentum he gives to the proceedings is spot on perfect and when channeled through that thumpingly witty Matt Clifford score, it becomes the most enjoyable feature of the film. And to top it all off we have a cheeky “Fail-Safe” like close taking us into the credits with a genuine sense of having spent 90 minutes of worthy film viewing. “Classic” is right.
Rating: The Good – 70.7 Genre: Comedy, Horror Duration: 95mins Director: Thom Eberhardt Stars: Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney, Robert Beltran
“Let’s play a game. It’s called scary noises.” Night of the Comet is one of those peculiar little comedy horrors which popped up in the 1980’s and played by an unidentifiable set of rules. It’s an irreverent ancestor of Omega Man, a contemporary of Fright Night, and a forerunner of 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It tells the story of two LA “valley girls” who after managing to survive a doomsday comet are left to combat mutating humans and sinister scientists who have their own plans on how to survive in the new world. Catherine Mary Stewart and Kelli Maroney do well together as the two sisters who are as handy with a submachine gun as they are with a hair-dryer. As is the case with the movie in general, there’s nothing spectacular about their chemistry or screen presence but they remain likeable and curiously interesting throughout. Robert Beltran (of Star Trek Voyager fame) adds some quirky support as an equally put upon survivor and he brings a nice balance to the proceedings.
The premise to Night of the Comet is explored with tongue firmly implanted in cheek and though it plays sarcastically on the personalities of the two previously well tended girls, it probably never takes itself seriously enough to make the most of those potentialities. What it does have, however, is a clever screenplay with a bone dry wit, some reasonably inspired action sequences, and best of all, some wonderfully sinister bad guys. The movie is at its most sophisticated when those three factors intersect and thankfully that happens on more than a few occasions. With regard to the sinister bad guys, Geoffrey Lewis’ coldly menacing scientist and Ivan E. Roth’s zombie gang leader are particularly delightful. The film was petering out until they showed up and while Roth’s is nothing more than a show-stealing cameo, Lewis’ character is important to the final act and the movie’s momentum is all the better for it. As is the case with these types of films, what makes Night of the Comet the cult classic it is, is the sense of fun it fosters. It’s not meant to be serious and if you can accept that, then the colourful characters and sharp writing will carry you through it with a smile.